The Role of a Project Manager in an Agile Environment

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In a post on Linkedin, Laureen Knudsen, a director of process and methodology at FICO, asked, “Is there a role for project managers in a fully agile environment?”

Laureen’s question, one that I have often wondered as well, got a whole lot of feedback from the agile and lean crowd, 167 comments and growing. I think to address her question we need to look at the Agile Manifesto first. I think the following line give us greater understanding: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools and responding to change over following a plan.”

The project manager role gets a little skewed when you look at agile methods, specifically Scrum. In Scrum, you have the ScrumMaster, who serves as a de facto project manager in some aspects for the agile development team. So the question becomes, “Do you have separate people serving in these roles or should the roles be held by only one person?"

Craig Cockburn, an IT professional and British Computer Society (BCS) chartered fellow, recommends reading a white paper about agile project management by Richard Pharro, CEO of APMG International, to find the answer.

It could be argued that the agile-related roles should be held by different people, However, I feel the roles should be combined because the project manager role is very different in agile due to the nature of business involvement. The project manager should be out in front of the development team removing obstacles that are hindering the project’s success.

Agile favors individuals and interactions, and no one is more visible and interactive with customers than the project manager. Combining the roles of project manager and ScrumMaster will make sure the focal point between developers and product owners is not lost either. In this case, the main focal point is the need for development to provide the product the customer desires.

Choosing to respond to change over following a plan is more difficult for project managers to do. Traditionally, the project manager’s main focus is to follow the project plan; agile requires one to favor responding to changes instead. Because of this, the project manager must shift his mindset to think more on the changes that occur during a project, rather than strictly following a plan.

One respondent recommends reading The Software Project Manager's Bridge to Agility by Michele Sliger and Stacia Broderick.

Mike Brown, principal software engineer at Accelrys, has a good quote on the need for a project manager in agile projects: “In agile, not only is there a need for PM, but the PM should be tightly integrated with the team focused on the same problems and communicating with rest of the team constantly.”

The main thing to consider when looking at the project manager’s role in the agile world is that project management principles are still being used and that the project manager is removing obstacles that hinder progress. The devil is in the details on how to achieve that end. I think the articles and the book I mentioned are a good start.

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Joe Townsend

Joe Townsend has been in the configuration management field for twelve years. He has worked for CNA Life Insurance, RCA, Boeing, UPS, and in state government. Joe has primarily worked with Serena tools, including PVCS Version Manager, Tracker, TeamTrack (Mashups), and Dimensions. He is an administrator for WebFocus and supports Eclipse users.